In Defence of Utilitarianism is often described as a theory that advocates making moral and political decisions so as to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Since Jeremy Bentham’s formulation of the theory over two hundred years ago, utilitarianism has become the dominant systematic answer to moral, political, legal, and economic questions in the English-speaking world. Despite the aforementioned, utilitarianism has numerous critics and the criticisms levelled against it are both powerful and persuasive. Following a critical analysis of the procedural objections to utilitarianism, this essay will argue that the reformulated versions of the philosophy address these objections. In so doing, this essay will provide a defence for utilitarianism against the claim that it sacrifices individuals for the greater good.
Procedural objections refer to the definition, formulation, and application of utilitarian theory. The first objection concerns the definition of utility. It has been variously defined by utilitarians as happiness, pleasure, human welfare, and the satisfaction of desires, interests, or preferences. However, each of these definitions has received serious critical attention. The criticisms of these definitions focus on the degree to which each is either formal or material. If the definition is purely formal, it is said that it provides no more direction than utility provides alone. If the definition is material, then its justification becomes problematic.
The classical utilitarians are said to have held a material definition of utility. Specifically, the definition is considered to have been a psychological account of utility, focusing on the feelings or sensations of pleasure and pain. Any material account would have to justify the inclusion of some experiences and the exclusion of others. Bentham and Mill wanted to include only pleasure and pain. Critics, including their fellow utilitarian, G. E. Moore, found this far too restrictive. Still other critics found unrestrained pleasure and pain entirely too lax to be the determinant of morally right actions. And still other critics were scandalized by Bentham’s comparison of poetry and push-pin. Among them, Mill himself, felt that utilitarianism «might have taken the higher ground» (Mill, 12).
The second possible objection to utilitarianism is that, regardless of how utility is defined, there must be some method for its calculation. That is, the utility of each available option must be determined for each affected party. The individual utilities, then, need to be combined to ascertain the aggregate utility of each option for the entire affected population. Attempts to measure utility have taken one or two basic approaches. The first approach is an ordinal ranking of available alternatives. That one can rank order his desires or preferences for different options is not controversial. However, one problem is that an ordinal ranking does not reflect the different intensities of preferences that utilitarians admit exist. For instance, Barbara’s ranking of A over B and B over C does not indicate her slight preference for A over B nor her great preference for B over C. Unfortunately, this problem is only magnified when the preferences of a large number of people need to be determined and combined. Unless intensities of preferences are introduced into the calculus, utilitarians are liable to the charge that their procedure, somewhat unsophisticated in its design, is even cruder in its application.
The second problem associated with ordinal ranking of utilities comes from the work of Kenneth Arrow (1951). Interpersonal ordinal ranking is usually modeled on a voting procedure. Arrow has shown that any voting procedure is unacceptable. This is because voting can easily lead to a paradox in which the society’s most desired or preferred option is not the most desired or preferred option of any one individual. Thus, what the society desires is not what any individual desires.
A different approach to the measurement of utility is through cardinal, rather than ordinal, ranking. It is recognized that if a cardinal scale could be developed, then it would account for the intensity of desires and preferences. Further, it is admitted that a cardinal scale can be constructed on an individual basis. In fact, different attempts to construct such a scale have assumed an individually defined starting point and unit of measurement. For example, given options A, B, and C, suppose Bonnie can vividly determine the strength of her preference for option B. By assigning option B an arbitrary value of 10 Bonnie can rank her relative preferences for options A and C. She can do this when she determines option A is greatly preferred to option B while option B is moderately preferred to option C. Comparison of these relationships A to B, C to B, and AB to BC will allow Bonnie to assign a value of, say, 20 to option A, and a value of 5 to option C.
This approach to measuring utility appears promising, at least on the individual level. However, it leaves unresolved the problem of interpersonal comparison. That is, how is Bonnie’s individually determined scale to be combined with Connie’s and Donnie’s? This stumbling block has prevented cardinal ranking, like ordinal ranking, from gaining any widespread acceptance. The result is that even the most promising versions of ordinal and cardinal approaches to measure utility have been failures. Considering the importance of measurement to the utilitarian calculus, the failure of the best attempts is a serious indictment of the utilitarian position.
The third procedural objection to utilitarianism is that it cannot make the necessary determination of an action’s alternatives and consequences. The most thorough presentation of this objection is found in the work of Lars Bergstrom (1966). It has been assumed by utilitarians of both historical and contemporary importance that determining available alternatives and the consequences of acting on those alternatives is straightforward and unproblematic. However, Bergstrom’s work has shown this assumption to be unsupported. Bergstrom concludes that the determination of alternatives is neither straightforward nor strictly empirical. Bergstrom reaches this conclusion from two separate arguments. First, the identification of alternatives is not entirely empirical because any plausible method of choice requires reference to the value of the consequences. Second, the entire set of available alternatives will be indeterminate since any action can be done in a number of different ways (each suggesting a different set of alternatives). This leaves the question as to how one is to select the relevant set from which a best alternative can be chosen.
The determination of consequences, states of affairs, events, or processes has been similarly ignored by most utilitarians. Again, Bergstrom’s work shows the price for that neglect. His highly technical arguments demonstrate that utilitarianism’s unsupported notions of causality and intentionality leave the position open to the charge of metaphysical and epistemological arbitrariness. In addition, the most plausible account of consequences includes the”total future state of the world”which obviously will have enormous practical difficulties.
The fourth procedural objection is that utilitarians have yet to decide to what the principle of utility applies. Does it apply to an action? Or, does it apply to a rule that encompasses particular actions? This is the act-utilitarianism versus rule-utilitarianism controversy. The act-utilitarian position, associated with Jeremy Bentham and more recently maintained by J. J. C. Smart, focuses on the utility or disutility of each alternative for each decision. Only in this way can maximal utility be assured. The rule-utilitarian position, associated historically with John Stuart Mill, and more recently with Richard Brandt, focuses on the utility or disutility of an action-guiding rule. Only in this way can one’s many decisions be made and certain counter-intuitive recommendations avoided.
The most thorough criticism of the act-utilitarianism versus rule-utilitarianism controversy was by David Lyons (1 965). Lyons rejects both versions after arguing that they are, in fact, equivalent. This claim of equivalence is the most dramatic aspect of Lyons’s work. The argument runs, roughly, that all actions are logically subject to a generalization or universalizability principle. Thus, the utility of an action entails the utility of similar actions in similar circumstances. In this way, act-utilitarianism leads to the generalized utilitarian position developed by Marcus Singer (1961). Lyons then shows that the results of generalized utilitarianism can be translated into moral rules with no change in import to utilitarian theory. Hence, Lyons has moved from act-utilitarianism through generalized utilitarianism to rule-utilitarianism with the claim that, properly formulated and understood, act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism entail for every possible case the same moral judgments. The result of this work is to show that the distinction, and hence the controversy, are pseudo ones. Further, it shows that the problems of act-utilitarianism that rule-utilitarians thought they avoided are rule-utilitarianism’s problems as well.
Arguably, the strongest response to the criticisms levelled against utilitarianism was made by R. M. Hare in his 1981 book, Moral Thinking. While Hare’s contributions to meta-ethical discussions have been recognized since the early 1950’s, it is only later that he was confident «that I had a theory of moral reasoning that would withstand scrutiny. Without such a theory, whatever one writes on practical issues is bound to be insecure» (1988, 206).
Hare’s reformulation of utilitarianism is worthy of examination for two reasons. First is the way in which Hare argues to his utilitarianism from his analysis of moral language. Having identified the language of morals as the language of overriding universal prescriptions, the normative question becomes: How should one adjudicate among seemingly-overriding, yet conflicting, universal prescriptions? Hare’s answer is to maximize the utility of the universal prescriptions, thus giving his position its utilitarian character. Second is the importance he attaches to a distinction between two levels of normative moral thinking. On one level, we determine the utility maximizing universal prescription in fairly straightforward utilitarian fashion. On the other level, we do the bulk of our moral thinking by referring to common moral maxims. The justification for and the relationship between these levels, the procedure for use of their methods, and the point of these moral deliberations are the unique features of Hare’s Reformulated Utilitarianism.
Hare’s response to such objections is not to defend the traditional utilitarian definition of «utility.» Nor is it to refine and/or qualify the traditional account. Rather, it is to reformulate utilitarianism, including its definition of «utility,» making the objections irrelevant. Hare identifies the logical features of moral discourse (prescriptivity, universalizability, and overridingness), then reasons from those logical features to his particular version of utilitarianism. Rather than reiterate that reasoning, it may be instructive to recast the reformulation in terms approximating the traditional account of «utility» Perhaps the contrast will help us see more easily the differences between the two. For Bentham:
Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do…. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection, and… approves or disapproves of every action… according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish… happiness. By utility is meant that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce… pleasure… (1789, pp. 1-2).
Meanwhile, for Hare, rational moral discourse has placed mankind under the authority of two masters, logic and the facts. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do. The principle of utility recognizes this subjection and approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency that it appears to have to augment or diminish maximal preference satisfaction. By utility is meant that property of any state of affairs in the world whereby it tends to satisfy the preferences of any affected There are four shifts that occur in this move from traditional to Reformulated Utilitarianism. The first is the shift from «nature» to «rational moral discourse.» This shift reflects the change in the character of the two projects. Bentham thought he was not only proclaiming the standard of right and wrong but also explaining the chain of causes and effects. His approach was naturalistic, so that it is no surprise that his starting point was the conditions”Nature”has placed mankind under. Hare, having long ago rejected naturalism, seeks only to understand how thinking about moral issues can be done rationally. His approach was developed in reaction to the ascendancy of emotivism in British moral philosophy, so perhaps it is understandable that his starting point is the role of reason in ethics.
The second shift is from pain and pleasure to logic and the facts. Clearly, this is not a direct substitution; logic and the facts are not psychological experiences that are to be compared and aggregated. But this shift highlights the very marked difference between the two projects and what types of concepts each author treats as his touchstone. Not only does this again signal Hare’s abandonment of naturalism, it also indicates that he sees the necessary starting point to be at a different, and higher, level of abstraction. This means that he will be starting with guidelines for a process of reasoning that will eventually identify what is to be taken as having intrinsic value rather than begin by identifying what has intrinsic value and building a theory from it.
Bentham started with ordinary experiences, based his notion of utility on them, developed a moral principle from his notion of utility, and then argued that this principle determines the right answer to normative questions. Hare started with the factual and logical features and constraints of reasoning about moral issues, found that this led him to a principle that could determine the right answer to moral questions, that this principle was utilitarian in character, and that “utility” could be redefined in the process. In brief, Bentham worked bottom-up from sensations, while Hare worked top-down from the logic of moral discourse.
The third change, and final change, is from happiness to maximal preference satisfaction. The change is also reflected in the replacement of produce pleasure with satisfy the preferences. This is at the heart of the change in the definition of utility from the traditional account to the Reformulated Utilitarian account. The general point of contrast between traditional and Reformulated Utilitarianism on this matter is in which direction each looks to find its definition of utility. One is subjective, the other direction objective. One approach takes utility to be a state of mind; that is, a mental state, such as the pleasure enjoyed when tasting a fine wine or the pain suffered from twisting an ankle. The other approach takes utility to be a state of the world; that is, a state of affairs that fulfils desires or preferences, such as the particular assortment of items from the grocery store that constitute your order.
In conclusion, the implications of the foregoing argument are clear. Certainly, utilitarianism has its weaknesses and arguments levelled against it are quite persuasive, to say the least. The fact remains, however, that it is possible to effectively defend utilitarianism against objections. As this essay demonstrated, Hare managed to do so through the reformulation of utilitarianism; a reformulation which preserved the core of the philosophy while rendering the cited objections irrelevant.
- Arrow, K. (1951) Social Choice and Individual Values. New York: Wiley.
- Bentham, J. (1789) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. London: T. Payne.
- Bergstrom, L. (1966) The Alternatives and Consequences of Actions. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
- Hare, R. M. (1981) Moral Thinking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lyons, D. (1965) The Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Mill, J. S. (1861) Utilitarianism. ed. Oskar Piest. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
- Singer, M. (1961) Generalization in Ethics. New York: Knopf.
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